The Crusaders 38-17 victory sealed back-to-back championships and completed a dominant season, officially bringing in the third dynasty in the franchise’s history.
With the Lions heavy underdogs, they needed everything to go right to unsettle this clinical Crusaders side. Here are six defining moments that wrote the script for the Crusaders ninth title.
Lions early pressure unrewarded
The Lions needed a fast start and early reward to build confidence that they could pull this upset off.
They almost had it when Ruan Combrinck sliced through in the early stages for a big line break. They were able to work their way down inside the Crusaders five but after 13 phases they knocked on, blowing a golden opportunity to get an early jump and start with a 7-0 lead.
They did open the scoring with a penalty in the 12th minute, but with the majority of possession and territory in the first half they will rue not being able to come away with more, especially in the first quarter when they had the run of play.
Jantjies brain fade
The Lions needed a flawless game from their Springbok playmaker Elton Jantjies to be a chance in this final. Things were going smoothly before an unraveling series of events after twenty minutes.
Already inside the Crusaders half, Jantjies overcooked a questionable bomb that was easily marked by Mo’unga inside the 22 with no pressure. He wasted no time and hoofing the ball back down the field while the Lions had no players back.
Jantjies waited and waited for the ball to roll over the try-line and casually picked the ball up and dotted down inside the goal line, thinking of a 22 restart. Unfortunately he ended up giving the Crusaders a five-metre scrum as the ball never crossed the chalk.
It was exactly the kind of mental error the Lions couldn’t afford.
Jantjies kicking game continually failed to create pressure against the Crusaders. Their bombing strategy seemed inspired by the Waratahs early season effort which helped them build an early 29-0 lead in that game. The key difference – the Lions don’t have the best jumper in the game, Israel Folau, like the Waratahs do.
Down 13-3 Jantjies tried another contested bomb from his own 35. The Lions kick chase over estimated the arrival time, allowing Richie Mo’unga to expertly time his jump with a perfect launch at top speed.
Mo’unga came down with the ball with momentum and found a crease to weave through the Lions staggered defence, putting on a lethal step on the cover tackle. He found support in Jack Goodhue, who was brought down inches short but they scored a phase later through fullback David Havili.
The converted try stretched the Crusaders lead to 20-3 and had the Lions reeling with five minutes left in the first half.
Lions maul gets mauled
There was a sense of building intrigue when the Lions kicked to the corner to setup the first lineout maul inside the five.
The Lions knew what they were going to do. The Crusaders knew what the Lions were going to do. All that was left to see was whether it would work. Unfortunately for the Lions, they were stopped in their tracks multiple times by a world-class pack that had their best weapon disarmed and dismantled by the end of the first half.
Unbeknown to the visitors, the Crusaders had statistically the best goal line lineout maul defence of any team in the competition. An astounding 96.3% of opposition lineout maul drives failed to score a try against the Crusaders this season. Just one try had been conceded all year in this fashion.
A strategy that has had a 3% success rate against the defending champions continued to fail on the biggest stage. When the Crusaders drove the third lineout maul in a row backward, the Lions were left perplexed and had to resort to plan B.
Decision to kick for three down 23-13.
A Cyle Brink try in the 52nd minute gave the Lions a glimmer of hope by cutting the Crusaders lead to 10 points. A rare missed tackle from Matt Todd allowed Brink to break free and scamped 20 metres to score unobstructured.
With the Lions clawing their way back into the contest, they earned a penalty in the roughly 40 metres out, hugging the left-hand touchline. An opportunity beckoned to kick for the corner again and perhaps play off the top of the lineout in search of another try.
Instead, the Lions opted for a long-range penalty kick through distance specialist Ruan Combrinck. He sprayed the kick wide left, giving the Crusaders a 22-metre restart which they successfully contested and won through Seta Tamanivalu.
A few minutes later they scored under the posts through replacement halfback Mitch Drummond to severely dent the Lions comeback hopes.
Havili’s quick lineout
The Crusaders continually threatened to pull away but the Lions were good enough to strike back each time to offer glimmers of a comeback.
A powerful Malcolm Marx try from short range with 14 minutes remaining gave the Lions a two-score deficit down 30-18.
As they had done all match, the Crusaders responded in emphatic fashion. A quick lineout by David Havili found George Bridge in the midfield. He evaded pressure and found some tired forwards in the defence, breaking through before linking with support.
Scott Barrett crashed over moments later for the definitive try, effectively sealing the match with a 37-18 lead.
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